Interview with Freddy Milton
by Anders Christian Sivebaek
Why this fantasy adventure?
It's not just fantasy, but a crossover between a fantasy world and our world. You’re right, though. I’m not in interested in fantasy per se, in which there is usually a lot of exotic action going on but little of real consequence actually happens, but then I came across the net games and they inspired me to apply a perspective that was not so single-minded and escapist.
How did you get the idea?
It isn’t that obvious since I don’t play computer games myself. But for years my son has spent many hours playing “World of Warcraft” online. He has now reached the highest level and along with many others is waiting for new expansion levels to be released. He is also getting older, however, and has formed other interests. So I’ve had a front-row seat on this kind of life within my own family. He also provided me with the information that avatars can actually fall into a black pit and disappear into a limbo online if you are unlucky enough to let your role-playing figure pass over a terrain that is not sufficiently well-defined in the building of the game exteriors. I was glad to hear that, since there's at least some real basis for that part of the logic that makes a role-playing figure disappear. My part is basically just adding the result that he pops up in our world.
So is your son perhaps also “questing” with other net game players?
Yes, for a while he was meeting six or seven other players at a regular time, and they all brought their avatars along to the meeting place. My son’s qualifications were well respected because not all of the other players had advanced to the highest level of performance.
And in my immediate environment, my youngest daughter got a Nintendo DS for her tenth birthday. It was upgraded to include 60 or 70 games, and she used it incessantly for a while. Now it’s mostly games downloaded for her Ipod since they are much cheaper. They are not so complex, but the novelty part plays an important role.
Computer games have become an area of interest in which much time has been spent, and not only by children and adolescents. Almost every day, I see a young couple who are both inveterate net gamers, and they met each other through a net game called “Second Life.” So I thought it was time that the activity and the elements involved deserved a comment in a fictional context.
Do you think the idea is original? Hasn’t such an obvious idea been used before?
I also wondered about that myself. I haven’t seen the subject matter used this way before, either in books or on film. And even if has been, it probably wasn’t used in the way I do it. But I got started in that field by watching an excellent Dutch film Ben X with a young man who had the Asperger form of autism, who used the net game ArchLord as a refuge because he had trouble getting on in the real world. It was an incredibly moving and tragic experience to watch this. For my whole life, I’ve been fascinated by themes involving children or people who are young at heart having problems adapting to a harsh and demanding reality. You can see that in my other books as well.
Can you imagine the story as a movie?
Yes, and it's probably because I think in pictures. It wouldn’t surprise me if a film company addressed me because they saw the possibilities. Movie audiences are interested in these themes, and now the technique has reached a stage where you can present such a story in a technically satisfactory manner.
What do you mean?
The other day I saw Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins and other good actors were filmed with electrodes attached to their bodies while they moved around. Then you have a lot of digital reference and can change their identity into a computer-generated character. You can still feel the Hopkins-identity behind the character. But to hire an expensive and good actor like him, however, and then just use his real appearance as a reference for a digital character is, I think, overkill. Now, in the case of Questland, they will find an actor to act on the real-world level, and then let him act out his avatar counterpart in Questland with electrodes. And in this case there is a point to it because the digital figure should indeed resemble him. It can easily be done these days so that the illusion is perfect, and it hasn’t been seen before. So I could imagine it could be a challenge for a film company, especially because you want to present a new idea and use a popular technique in a new way.
How did you get the idea for the title?
I had heard the phrase “to quest” several times when my son agreed to team up with his group on the web and play together on perilous missions. It was often at meal times, so when asked if he would eat with us, we often got the answer “No, I have a quest tonight…”
Hasn’t it been used before? The title sounds so obvious.
I thought so, too. So I Googled the name and I got the comment “Did you mean Queensland?” So it was okay. But then Jussi Adler Olsen said to me “You should register that name.” The cheapest way to do this is by booking a domain, so I bought “Questland.org.” I would have also liked to buy “Questland.com” but somebody in Texas already had. I asked him if he would like to sell it but I have not received any response. It is not in use on the web, however.
Do you think net game players read books?
Some do, I believe, but it's really not necessary to be interested in computer games to understand or get something out of reading Questland. It works on a more general level. To present a book with something resembling a computer game has probably been done before. I wouldn’t just do it as a “me too” approach.
Won’t the readers be disappointed?
I don’t think so. One third of the book is pure fantasy, which could have worked without any attachment to a net game. But where things get interesting is of course in the transition between the fantasy level and the real world. Michael Ende has in this respect been a great role model for me in the way the fantasy element is given a special structural significance. Where reality in most fantasy books is mostly a feature wrapped around the fantasy part, it is here included as an equal part of the parallelism just as it is in Michael Ende’s book.
Is it a meta-book, then?
No, not if you mean to say that I enjoy playing with the medium's boundaries and people's knowledge of the mechanisms. Actually, I took this double-universe feature quite seriously and made the border-crossing elements as believable as I could. My son has been a great help to me here. But it was a balancing act to determine how much my character’s knowledge of the parallelism should be stretched. Most dimension portals in fantasy are used to let people from our world into a fantasy universe, as in Narnia, but here the transfer works the other way.
And my middle daughter has contributed a girl's angle to the plot so there are also interesting subjects for a female audience. I got the comment from my oldest daughter, “Well, so you've probably seen Enchanted?” I had indeed, but my crossover has its own tone and angle, and it isn’t a comedy even though there are funny situations along the way.
Why did you use a first-person narrator?
It seemed natural and came quite automatically. In this way I add an extra dimension because our universe is viewed by a visitor from the outside. We are then as readers forced into looking at things in our world with new eyes. Then we know more than our protagonist. It is also a character-developing story.
Is that why you have a quote from “Kasper Hauser” in the beginning of the book?
Yes, it was a great experience in my youth when I saw that film by Werner Herzog for the first time. The main character is quite wonderful when he is thinking heavily and then says Es kommt mir vor... That sentence was for many years an internal joke I used, when to show that you thought carefully about things. The theme of a naive person who suddenly has to learn to cope with our complex world I felt was extremely fascinating, and I still do.
There was another story in my youth I was deeply taken with. It was a science-fiction short story by Daniel Keyes called “Flowers for Algernon.” It was also been made into a movie by Jeff Bleckner. In written form, it is shown as a diary in which the naïve main character is so proud of getting smarter and then slowly loses his abilities towards the end, which is reflected in his declining spelling ability. I wept when I read that story as a youngster.
I also remember an astrological personality description of me that said I often felt like a visitor from an alien planet, who stood in a kind of observer’s role towards life taking place around me. That analysis made a great impression on me because I thought it fit. For long periods in my life, I have felt as though I was on the outskirts of life, standing there looking at things going on without really being able to participate socially. I can’t deny that it contributed to my lifelong desire to tell stories that could then be seen as an attempt to cope with some facts I might not quite be able to handle in the real world. But so have other authors, I might add, and artists in general.
So the fiction helps in that way?
Yes, and I am not alone. I think many others use fiction to come to grips with some human mechanisms, both the general and the more specific ones, including matters you wouldn’t even dare touch in the real world. As that narrator, you basically have a great responsibility. But readers also want to be challenged when they read books.
Who is the target audience for your book?
It is a typical merchandising question. Especially when doing something also to be used by children and adolescents, it is expected that things are organized and treated in a specific consumer-oriented way. Indeed, that might even include an adult audience, when analyzing what subjects seems to guarantee big sales. It's a bit depressing with all the psychopathic villains who apparently must appear in thriller novels these days and commit atrocious things as the driver of the plot. It has been widely used in adult literature recently because it increases sales. As for my own book, my editor made me simplify the language so it would be easier for a younger audience to read. On that account I had to kill quite a few darlings of invented words. So I ended up prioritizing readability.
But you still have a lot of funny words…
Yes, there are a lot of different names for things in Questland, places, persons, animals, and plants. The moments where Aciel uses his own words when he describes things and concepts from our world add a humorous angle. I would really like the story to be both exciting and touching, funny and sad, serious and thoughtful during reading. Therefore there are also changes of pace. Several features are pure action scenes, others are lingering, descriptive, and moody. The key is that you cannot predict which direction the plot will take you. You will hopefully be surprised by the direction in which the story goes. In short, you might say that it is the kind of story I would love to experience if others told it to me. I had that ambition as well. But of course this is also a retrospective analysis because when you write your story you do not think consciously of these elements. Then it would become mechanical. But it has been a great experience to discover that I could organize so many details while developing a logical dramatic pattern.
There are some violent scenes in Questland...
That’s inevitable when the theme is the juxtaposition of the premises for life and death in an entertainment universe and the corresponding harsh conditions in our real world. I had to put these two angles up against each other and see if it would gel, and I think it does, but then again I'm also greatly biased. However, I believe the story can be appreciated by young readers. Young people today are used to experiencing dramatic things. The question of life and death is probably relevant for everyone, regardless of age. The Neverending Story, I think, is not just a children's book, even if a child is telling the story. In it, you have the life and death of all fantasy literature right in front of you. In general, I can say that over the years I have been moved the most by the stories in which a child or a naïve person is the entry point for experiencing an adult world. In my case, it is the game of life and death for a warrior coming from a net game in which he exists in something like a medieval environment. Back there, the ideals are more clan-oriented and harder than we have become accustomed to in our well-regulated and civilized Western society. We sometimes forget our recent past and almost get offended by the regions on Earth where they have not advanced as much in development but still must fight for existence in a harsh and unrelenting way.
You have a mercenary who tells a grim story from the Middle East. Isn’t that a bit rough?
I don’t think so. I just had Martin participate in an affair that is known as the Haditha incident, in which a lot of civilians were mowed down by Western soldiers. He comes home and tells about it to Aciel, who is also a warrior. Nothing would be more inevitable, and it is only natural to have that angle included in a book that deals with the conditions of life and death at different levels.
Are there other sources of inspiration?
On a more entertainment based level, I took great pleasure in William Goldman's The Princess Bride, in which Peter Falk plays a grandfather who is constantly interrupted by the sick boy who is having the book read aloud to him. It inspired me for the scene in which Little Brother listens to Aciel’s stories from Questland. The other day I saw Secondhand Lions and it is also one of those films that are enriched by parallel stories from an adventure universe and our world.
You never confront Aciel with the harsh reality that he as an avatar is only a puppet in the hands of a puppeteer from our world. Why not?
I think I would want to retain a degree of innocence within him. I wanted to spare him the harsh realization of how things work in detail. He must be allowed to maintain a little bit of naivety so his self-respect is not totally destroyed.
Is there inspiration from the comic world about dragons and sea serpents?
It’s clear that when you grew up with Carl Barks and his Donald Duck stories such as “No Such Varmint,” you will necessarily have certain influences, and I would find it difficult to deny that influence when I present a sea serpent that crawls up to a crater lake. But in the funny animal comics, we’re usually talking about moderate threats. In fantasy, on the other hand, you use these creatures as dangerous forces of chaos that threaten the balance of society, so that's also that twist I have chosen in the book.
Why did you use the preserved Swedish castle Glimmingehus in Questland?
I needed a castle where Princess Marguerite was held captive. And when I had done thorough studies of Glimmingehus for the occasion of my pictorial version of Selma Lagerlöf’s The Grey Rats and the Black Rats, I had pictures and floor plans lying around. So I thought “Why not use it?” So I did, and its presence in Questland as well can surely be explained. I've always been very interested in history, and the castle of Glimmingehus has fascinated me in particular because it has an ingenious system of defense mechanisms to deal with invaders. They were never used because the castle was built at such a late date that historical development had left sieges and fortress attacks behind. I thought that it was a little unfortunate in a way, so now I compensate for it by letting Glimmingehus experience an attack, even if it’s in a parallel world with a fight against a sorceress in her dragon form and her minions.
Besides Glimmingehus and soldiers’ life, have you done research on other topics in the book?
I heard an interesting program about gambling addiction. This sort is very frightening for someone like me who is very careful with his living expenses. And as far as gang-related violence is concerned, new documentation comes rolling in constantly. Just as I wrote the book, there was a week in which attacks and assaults were reported on the news over five consecutive days. But I generally prefer the knowledge I get following the daily news and I watch a lot of documentaries on TV. The best ones I store in my archive so I can see them again if I need to refresh my memory about a subject.
As an artist it must have been tempting to add some illustrations or vignettes, so why not?
Yes, and I could also have devised a map of Questland, but I deliberately omitted even that. I do consider a pure graphic novel an excellent consistent way of expression when it comes to presenting a strong vision. However, I nurture a deep skepticism about hybrid forms that tell a part of a story as a comic and something else as prose. It is destructive to the illusion you trying to create. Reader involvement is spoiled every time you change the means of expression during story. In the end you are left with a loss of credibility. The reader is reminded that this is only a story that you have manipulated to look cool and inviting through some misguided presentation. Literary people think that they attract more readers with pictures and illustrators think they get a structure from literature to lean on, and both parties are unfortunately horribly wrong. This bastard form can perhaps be used to convey simple stories, but for fiction with ambitions and depth it is of no use.
Other fantasy writers often write entire series of books. Are you thinking of that?
Yes, I will write a series, but it will not be with recurring characters. Only the theme “Between Life and Death” will be the same. But I have twelve ideas to be presented, so it will indeed be a series.